Road trips are a lot of fun and renting a car on your trip gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility to go wherever you want, when you want. There’s also no need to pay for taxis, expensive excursions, or guided tours, but at the same time, rental cars can sometimes be very expensive. Prices depend on a lot of factors and there are a lot of pricy pitfalls when it comes to unforeseen extras. Luckily you can avoid paying too much so here are 12 tips to save money on your rental car.

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1. Avoid the high seasons

This might sound obvious, but car rental prices do fluctuate heavily depending on supply and demand. Nowadays car rental companies use arbitrage pricing, similar to airlines and hotel booking websites in order to optimize their prices. Demand for cars usually peaks during certain times of the year, so the fleet of rental companies is usually based on the demand during those peaks. Outside those peak times, cars are usually a bargain and sometimes even rented out at a loss, because they also cost money when standing still (think about insurance, road tax, and depreciation).

Peak times do vary per location though. In a region that heavily depends on tourism without much of a domestic or business market, you’ll see a surge in demand and prices during summer holidays, winter holidays, school breaks, and bank holiday weekends. On the other hand, when a region relies more on demand from business travelers than tourists, holidays could be the low and cheaper season.

So by searching for plane tickets, hotels, and rental cars simultaneously, and planning your trip accordingly, you can save a lot of money on the whole trip.

2. Compare prices online

Use a car rental comparison website to compare prices for different companies and dates. Not all comparison websites have the same inventory, so you might want to do a search on multiple websites to find the best deal.

3. Don’t fall for the insurance trap

In practically all cases a rental car automatically comes with standard insurance. They wouldn’t even be allowed to let you drive in a car that has no insurance. However, the standard insurance usually comes with an excess. This means that you are still liable for any damage, but only up to a certain maximum amount, which depends on the company and type of car. The excess damage amount is usually between 500 and 1500 euros but can be more for very expensive cars. Standard insurance usually also doesn’t cover damage to tires and windows, loss of keys, or theft of any personal items. So rental companies offer additional insurance to cover the extras and reduce the excess damage amount to zero, but at a high daily rate which sometimes even exceeds the rental price. There’s no need to buy this expensive insurance as there are better alternatives.

There are plenty of websites offering cheaper insurance specifically for rental cars, which covers the excess damage, personal injuries, or tires and windshield at a much lower rate. This means that you will still be charged for any damage by the rental company, but you can send that invoice to the external insurance company to get your money back. When I was still living in Ireland I personally used an Irish company called on many occasions. I could choose between daily insurance for a one-time rental or a yearly cover which was cheaper when renting multiple times in a year. CarHireExcess is only covering people that live in Ireland, so it’s best to google “rental car insurance” in your region to see which companies offer this in your area.

Some credit card companies also offer free insurance on your purchases, which might include rental cars. So check this with your credit card company before buying insurance or check for a credit card that does have this cover included for free.

The last option is to take no insurance at all. Insurance is a numbers game, so if you rent many times and pay for insurance every time you might end up paying more than the actual damage charged even if you get an accident sometime, as this is limited to the excess amount. This is a personal risk consideration you need to take yourself.

4. Don’t buy the extras

The car rental market is extremely competitive, so rental companies operate with very tight margins on rental prices. These low prices are not only driven by competition, but also by the transparency of online prices and comparison websites. This is why the advertised prices are low but never include any extras. In order to make up for this, the extras are sold at inflated prices that can double, or even triple the total price. Luckily there are several ways to avoid additional costs:

  • GPS: Nowadays car manufacturers build in more and more extras as a standard, so if you’re lucky your car could already come with a built in navigation system, so you don’t need to rent the additional GPS device. However, most of the time it doesn’t but you still don’t need to pay for it. Smartphones have Google maps for free and there are also plenty of other navigation apps that you can download for free on your phone. EU citizens have free roaming in the entire EU, while in other cases you could think about getting a local sim card or see if your phone operator offers a cheap data roaming package so you can use your phone with live maps and traffic data. To avoid any data roaming at all, you can still download maps or download an offline navigation app. Google Maps now also offers offline navigation if you download the right maps in the app. In order to set up your phone as a navigation system in your car, you can buy a holder that you can fit into the air vents or suck to the dashboard or windshield.
  • Child booster and infant seats: these are obviously a necessity if you have young kids. However, if you have the ability to take your own seats with you, you can save on the costs of renting these.
  • Additional drivers: All drivers need to be registered in order to be allowed to drive and to be covered under the insurance. Rental companies have made a habit of charging for this per day of your rental, which can become ridiculously expensive. However, sometimes rental companies have a promotion that includes a free additional driver, so take this in mind when searching for offers. Also, plan ahead for who’s going to drive. If you’re a group of four and need to drive long distances, you could choose to sign up only 2 drivers so you can still take turns.
  • Winter tires and snow chains: In winter this is mandatory in some countries and regions so this could be a must-have. So check and compare the extra charges for this as well before making a reservation. To avoid any extra charges, you could also take or buy your own snow chains.

        5. Avoid additional location fees

        • Prime location fees: Rental companies pay heavy fees for their airport desks, parking spaces, or downtown office rental. Therefore they sometimes charge an additional ‘prime location’ fee in these locations. These fees are normally already included in the rental price you see online, but it might be worth checking if it is cheaper to pick up your car at a different location.
        • Cross-border fees: If you are planning to visit multiple countries, you need to make sure that the car rental company actually allows you to do so in the first place. In some cases, they require also upfront notice and approval so they can prepare the correct documents for you to show at the border. Especially in the latter case, they might charge fees for this, so check and compare between companies to avoid surprises.
        • One-way rentals: Road trips are a lot of fun, but driving back the same route could be a bit boring and time-consuming. Therefore some rental companies allow one-way rentals, so you can just pick up your car in one place and drop it off at your final destination. Sounds easy, but actually this is logistically complicated for the rental company, as they might need that car back in the original location. Some companies offer this service for free, but some charge a hefty fee for this if they allow it at all. Allowing one-way rentals across country borders is very uncommon and extremely pricy. So do check what is possible and at what cost when planning your itinerary. Alternatively, you can plan a round trip that finishes back in the same location without driving back the exact same route.

          6. Stick to the fuel policy

          This is a tricky one as it could be a true hidden cost. In my opinion, the only fair option is when the tank is full when you pick up your car and you return it with a full tank as well. This way you don’t have to bother about how much fuel to fill up at any time as long as you make sure to fill it up just before you return the car. This is common practice and mostly adhered to by the more trusted brands.

          However, oftentimes you pick up your car with a tank that is only half full or in the worst case almost empty. It sounds fair to ask you to bring it back in the same state, but herein lies the problem. How much do you need to fill up? How far are you planning to drive? How fuel efficient is the car? Where are the petrol stations on the way? What if you don’t have a fixed plan or your plans change? You don’t want to be out of petrol in the middle of nowhere or even bother that this could possibly happen. So better safe than sorry, so there’s no worry? This is what most people think so they fill up more than they actually need and return the car with more fuel, but without getting a refund. In my experience, this happens more often with cheap companies. Not to say that this always happens on purpose, but I’m pretty sure some companies bank a few bucks by emptying the tanks of returned cars.

          So my advice is to insist on receiving a full tank if possible. If not, make a rough calculation of how much you need based on your itinerary. If there are plenty of petrol stations around, you can always fill up more on the way. A last piece of advice I would like to give is to always make sure that the fuel level is correctly marked on the rental agreement. Bringing back the car with less fuel is never a good idea as you will be charged the difference (sometimes at a higher price) plus a service fee.

          7. Avoid additional administration costs

          Traffic fines are never fun, but could be even more expensive with a rented vehicle as car rental companies are notorious for their administration fees. Since the car is registered to the rental company, they will receive the fine and need to identify you as the driver. They can either send your details to the authorities or pay the fine on your behalf and charge your credit card for it. In the latter case, they might charge additional administration fees. So my advice is to avoid traffic violations at all costs, but if you get a fine on the spot, opt for paying in cash instead of having the fine sent to the rental company.

          Another administration fee to avoid is for toll roads. Toll roads are sometimes unavoidable, so you need to calculate these into your budget. Most of the time you can pay on location, but there are also toll roads that just scan the car’s registration number and you need to pay online yourself. (The M50 in Ireland is an example of this). If you don’t pay yourself, your rental company could again apply additional fees.

          8. Avoid unnecessary damage claims

          Always check the state of your vehicle when you pick it up. I mean, always! Don’t even mind that it’s busy or they try to rush you out. Check for any damage, scratches (also on the windows), missing items, cleanliness, and the fuel level. Make sure any damage is marked on the rental agreement and you get a signed copy before you drive off. Another piece of advice is to take pictures or a video from all angles of the car and especially zoom in on any visible damage. Do this upon return as well so you always have proof of the state in which you returned the car.

          9. Loyalty programs

          Always check the state of your vehicle when you pick it up. I mean, always! Don’t even mind that it’s busy or they try to rush you out. Check for any damage, scratches (also on the windows), missing items, cleanliness, and the fuel level. Make sure any damage is marked on the rental agreement and you get a signed copy before you drive off. Another piece of advice is to take pictures or a video from all angles of the car and especially zoom in on any visible damage. Do this upon return as well so you always have proof of the state in which you returned the car.

          10. Airline miles

          Alternatively, most international car rental brands also offer airline miles instead of their own loyalty program points, or you can pay for your rental with your airline miles. If you don’t often rent with the same rental company it could be more beneficial to go for airline miles, especially if you are already part of an airline loyalty program and often fly with the same airline or any of their alliance partners. Oftentimes there are also promotions offering double or triple miles so it’s best to stay up to date by opting in for their email newsletters.

          11. Free upgrades

          Do you really need that luxury car or big-ass SUV? If the answer is yes then go for it! However, many times you can get an upgrade for free if your booked car class is not available. So by booking a small car class, you can save on the rental price but still have a chance to drive a more expensive car. Some credit cards also offer free car rental upgrades, so keep an eye out for these partnerships as well.  Personally, I rented many cars over the past years and got upgraded for free almost half of the time.

          12. Learn to drive a manual

          This might sound silly and obvious to some people, especially in Europe. But in some countries, like the US, automatic transmissions are the standard and people never learn to drive a manual. So in countries where a manual is the standard, car rental companies usually only have a limited supply of automatic cars and they are almost always more expensive. So learning to drive both automatic and manual can save you a lot.